No-first-use: No reason to panic

By Ta Minh Tuan, September 29, 2016

After Barack Obama's declaration of a US nuclear no-first-use policy, Washington's security guarantees are suddenly questioned throughout Asia. Tokyo and Seoul consider developing their own nuclear deterrents. Beijing feels emboldened to pursue its territorial claims more aggressively. The same goes for Pyongyang and its nuclear weapons program.

This is the scenario that my roundtable colleague Raymund Jose G. Quilop advanced in Round One. Parris Chang advanced a limited version of the same argument. I would argue that there is no reason whatsoever to fear such a scenario.

First, all nations are bound by international commitments, and world leaders' strategic security calculations are based on a certain level of trust that other nations will honor their vows. Where Washington is concerned, such trust is well-founded. The United States has established a good track record of keeping its word over the decades. This is part of the reason that Washington has occupied center stage in international affairs since World War II. It is very hard to find grounds on which to judge the United States an untrustworthy ally.

So what would Washington's allies in East Asia conclude about US trustworthiness if Obama declared a no-first-use policy? Would they develop doubts about US extended nuclear deterrence if deterrence no longer included the possibility of a nuclear first strike? Rest assured—nations such as South Korea and Japan aren't naïve enough to base their security on nuclear first strikes by the United States. What's actually important to them is Washington's respect for its bilateral and multilateral security treaties, as well as Washington's readiness to take immediate action when necessary. A no-first-use policy would not affect in any way Washington's pledges to protect its treaty allies. It wouldn't affect Washington's nuclear umbrella, its conventional power, or the exercise of its international standing.

Nor would a nuclear no-first-use policy embolden Beijing to behave more aggressively. Today, despite the ambiguity about first use in US nuclear doctrine, China already behaves confidently in Northeast Asia and the South China Sea. Beijing clearly does not view the possibility of a US first strike as a deterrent to its current actions. So why should removing that possibility cause China to act more assertively? Beijing would gain nothing from presenting itself as a greater threat to the United States, Washington's Asian allies, and East Asian security. No evidence suggests that Beijing would opt for an antagonistic response to the declaration of a no-first-use policy.

In Pyongyang, calculations would be similar in some ways. North Korea's provocations over the years have borne little relation to US nuclear deterrence policy. Rather, US deterrence has proved a failure insofar as it has not prevented North Korea from developing and testing nuclear weapons. To put it another way, North Korea’s leaders are not scared of US nuclear deterrence. If they decide to behave more aggressively, they certainly have the means to do so. It's just that responding aggressively to a US no-first-use declaration would deliver no benefit to the North Koreans.

To the contrary, a no-first-use declaration might demonstrate to Pyongyang that the United States had no intention of overthrowing the North Korean regime (a matter of utmost concern to North Korea's leaders). And even if leaders in North Korea did not entirely trust a US no-first-use policy, at least the pressure on them to maximize their nuclear preparedness would be relieved. The same might be true of leaders in Beijing.

In short, no player in East Asia or Southeast Asia would profit by attempting to exploit a US no-first-use policy. Instead, nations would perceive the policy itself as beneficial—Washington would have declared itself a status quo power in Asia's nuclear affairs and the region as whole would become more secure. No one in East or Southeast Asia has any good reason to stir up the region's already troubled waters.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons